Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) (2007)

Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) first published by Film4

Synopsis: Writer/director/actor Nacho Vigalondo‘s multi-award-winning feature debut is a twisty time-traveling thriller with a noirish morality at its core. 

Review:  While a car is in motion, its boot swings open, leaving behind a scattered wake of shopping bags – and so the driver gets out and heads back to clean up the mess before completing his drive home. This natural and innocuous-seeming sequence of events forms a fitting prologue to Nacho Vigalondo‘s Timecrimes, in which the vehicle’s driver Héctor (Karra Elejalde) will be shown repeatedly retracing his steps to correct a trail of errors that impede his return to domestic normalcy. Whether he ever really makes it back, however, is a question left for viewers to decide for themselves, as this SF brainteaser reveals a noirish morality at its heart. 

Héctor may be middle-aged, overweight, grouchy and lazy, but his relationship with his wife Clara (Candela Fernández) has stood the test of time, and he hardly seems about to abandon altogether the course that his life has thus far been taking – but when one afternoon his eye strays to a pretty young woman (Bárbara Goenaga) undressing in the woods beside his new villa, his curiosity and desire are certainly fired. Heading out into the trees, he finds the woman naked and unconscious, and is then stabbed in the arm without warning by a silent, scissors-wielding man whose face is wrapped in bandages like some slasher-movie throwback. 

Fleeing for safety to a nearby research facility, Héctor encounters a nervous scientist (played by Vigalondo himself) moonlighting there over the weekend. The scientist recommends his terrified neighbour hide in a machine filled with murky white liquid (now there is a potent image for unbridled masculine desire), where he is ‘accidentally’ sent back several hours in time – except that in this film, there are no accidents, even if causes have a funny way of following their effects.

Timecrimes follows in the footsteps of Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004), proving once again that as long as the ideas are in place and the story is meticulously plotted, a time-paradox flick needs neither special effects nor big budget. Devotees of this subgenre will spend the first third of Vigalondo’s film flattering themselves that they are way ahead of the game, only to realise by act three just how behind they have been all along, as we follow Héctor’s linear (if not strictly chronological) perspective to and fro through a chain of increasingly complex collisions that all lead to one (possibly inevitable) conclusion. 

There may be only four speaking parts here, but the pace is relentless (in keeping with Héctor’s instructions to one character to “keep going forward”), while the criss-crossing narratives form an intricate puzzle with an elegant, if ethically unsettling, solution. Vigalondo may be dealing with rigid causality loops and deterministic theories of time that do not seem to allow much room for free will – but at the same time his circular story is constantly driven forwards by Héctor and the scientist’s all-too-human curiosity, as well as their self-defensive need to cover the tracks of their transgressions and return to the straight and narrow.

In this way, even on a second or third viewing (which many viewers may well feel that they need to appreciate all the nuances) the plot remains watertight not only as a mind-bending piece of speculative physics but also as a moral drama where minor indiscretions snowball into abduction, violence and something like murder. Héctor, it will turn out, knows himself and his weaknesses all too well – and when we see him at the end, as at the beginning, sitting on a deckchair staring out at the woods, we can also at last see for ourselves where the fantasy-fuelled male gaze, when left unchecked, can lead. It may not be a pretty sight, but it is compelling, haunting, and also darkly comic – and we are never ultimately sure just how Héctor will pick up all the pieces he has left in his twisting trail. 

In a nutshell: Meticulous plotting, breathless pacing, paradoxes aplenty, and some surprisingly human dilemmas, all make this low-key sci-fi thriller well worth going back over again and again. It is a Primer-like triumph of ideas over budget.  

© Anton Bitel